Moscow is not your usual backpacking destination, especially because of its reputation for being one of the most expensive and unfriendly cities in the world, but once you break beneath the stereotypical hard and chilly exterior, you will discover a city that oozes history, charm and affordable extravagance.
Places to Visit in Moscow
Vodka fans, be aware – this is the real stuff and it’s strong! As a vodka enthusiast, I could not come all the way to Russia’s capital city without visiting the museum dedicated to one of my favourite tipples.
The Vodka Museum is situated in Izmaylovo near Izmaylovo Market and is open from 10am until 8pm. The guided tour takes you through the history and traditions of Russian vodka, with demonstrations on vodka distillation and displays of various vodka bottles used over the centuries.
If you are want to sample the real stuff, taster sessions are available with food in the museum’s traktir (restaurant). However, if you are looking to purchase a souvenir, avoid high tourist prices and head to the nearby Izmaylovo Market where you can purchase a bottle of the national drink and a couple of shot glasses for a fraction of the price.
Izmailovsky Park & Market
Izmaylovo Market is a Mecca for bargain hunting backpackers. Located close to Izmailovsky Park, this thriving market sells anything and everything from traditional and novelty matryoshka nestling dolls and authentic wood carvings, to original artwork and wolf skins.
The market takes place every day from 10am to 5pm and on Saturday and Sunday the selection is wider and buskers add to the ambience as they strum along on their guitars on the stage-set medieval wooden palace near the entrance.
There is plenty to see so get to the market early and don’t be afraid to haggle – in Russian!
Izmailovsky Park boasts 750-acres of grounds and was once home to Peter the Great. The beautiful surroundings make a great spot for lazy picnics under the summer sun or a brisk snowy walk in the winter.
Ice skating in Gorky Park
If you are visiting Moscow during the chilly (but much less touristy) winter months, your visit will not be complete without an ice skating session at Gorky Park.
Famous for its theme park and rides in the summer, the 300-acre park turns into a scene from Narnia during the winter months. Pathways are frozen over with thick ice and people skate everywhere – and I mean everywhere!
You can either bring your own ice skates or rent a pair from one of the stands. Choose from speed racing around the park, joining in on a game of ice hockey with the locals, or a triple axle followed by a Biellmann spin – I decided to leave that one to the pros after a couple of failed attempts and a bruised bottom.
Kremlin and Red Square
Kremlin is one of Moscow’s most historic areas situated in the hub of the city overlooking the Moskva River, Red Square and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and is the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation.
The historic fortified complex is home to an array of magnificent architecture including four palaces, four cathedrals, and the 15th-century Kremlin Walls and Towers including the monumental Ivan the Great Bell Tower.
Red Square is considered as the central square of Moscow and is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With history dating back to the 13th century, the square is the hub of the Russian city and a fantastic place to absorb Russia’s culture and striking architecture and turbulent past.
Visit Red Square on New Year’s Eve where locals spill out from restaurants in Moscow and celebrate the festivities with a spectacular fireworks display – just remember to dress up for the occasion with a traditional faux fur ushanka (hat) and muff!
Russian Banya (Bathhouse)
If you are looking for a way to escape the typically freezing temperature of Moscow, head to one of Moscow’s Banyas to warm up. Similar to a sauna, the Banya is a traditional aspect of Russia’s culture and a great way to relax and unwind from the noise of the bustling city.
The Banya process is not for the faint-hearted but if you want to score some brownie points with the locals, say “S lekheem parom” to fellow bathers, which literally means “I wish you a light steam”.
The process starts with a shower and then an 8 to 12 minute session in the steam room. The steam room has different levels with the top being the hottest and is typically occupied by the hardcore Russians who frequent the city’s Banyas.
Someone pours a ladle of water onto the hot stone regularly to emit steam into the room and sometime Russians will add a little beer to the hot stones to add some flavour to the steam (any excuse!)
If you want to experience a unique Russian tradition, take a branch of leaves called “feniky” and lightly beat the backs of fellow bathers. This treatment is believed to open up the pores and enhances the experience.
After the Banya, bathers will then jump into a pool of cold water which will close the pores. This process is repeated four to five times and is often interrupted by a break for tea or a refreshing beer.
Amar was born and raised in England and embarked on an 11-country round-the-world gap year after graduation and then became well and truly hooked. The first gap year inspired a second, which ended up being a 23-country down-the-world trip from Canada to Antarctica. Since then, Amar has spent the last 14 years traveling the 7 continents.